By Brandon Martin
New College Institute Interim Director Karen Jackson joined former governor Terry McAuliffe for a virtual conversation on Feb. 4 about his plan to make Virginia the best state in the nation for Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Healthcare (STEM-H), and computer science and computation thinking (CS & CT) education.
McAuliffe recently announced his intention to run for governor again in 2021. Under his “Path to a Brighter Future,” he seeks to address the digital equity gap, integrate STEM-H and computer science literacy across all subjects and K-12 grade levels, and engage the private sector to make opportunities available to students from all walks of life.
“We need Virginia to lead America and we need to lead that post-COVID economy,” McAuliffe said. “For me, it always comes down to education. Those that are building the best education system, the best workforce, are those that are going to be able to recruit the jobs of the 21st century. Eighty percent of the high-paying and high-demand jobs of the future are going to require some background, some knowledge and some training in STEM-H and computer science.”
Jackson, who formerly served as the Secretary of Technology in McAuliffe’s administration, highlighted the importance of fostering interest in technology careers at a young age.
“This is a bold plan and I’m completely behind what you have in there,” Jackson told McAuliffe. “These kids are digital natives now. What are we doing to take that fearlessness out that is nascent in who they are? We put them in these school systems and then suddenly technology becomes too hard. There is something broken in that system.”
In the past, Jackson said that past efforts such as the Virginia Cyber Range were useful in attracting the next generation to cyber-related career fields.
One of the things that came out of McAuliffe’s “cyber commission was the need for kids to have a place where they could practice their cyber skills so they could be more industry ready when they went into college, work or wherever,” Jackson said, adding that approximately $2 million was spent on “a playground” which was accessible by teachers and students throughout the Commonwealth to practice cyber skills.
“It didn’t run the risk of breaking the school’s IT network, which was always a big concern,” Jackson said.
By having the right venue to practice, Jackson said students who typically don’t enter the career field were given hope.
“You made me the first female Director of Technology. That was a bold move,” Jackson said. “That made me a little more dogged and determined to make sure that women and young girls saw that there was an opportunity for them in these fields.”
Jackson said there are multiple career fields in STEM-H and computer science that aren’t solely reliant on a four-year degree.
“It doesn’t have to be a two or four-year degree for your child to be very successful and have a successful career,” Jackson said. “We need to make sure that we provide those opportunities in an ecosystem so that they are learning, they are enjoying, they are seeing mentors and they have a trajectory straight into a good career at the end.”
Solomon McKenley, a junior at Bristol High School who plans to study computer science in college, said he became interested in technology “when I was younger. Technology was always around, and I was always curious how technology works and how people could program something to do a certain thing.
“For getting people interested, I feel like it is always good to start early. Bringing in businesses and owners that can provide internships and get students interested as early as possible is the best way to do it,” McKenley said, and added that he does not think interest in technology fields is currently being pushed early enough.
“I feel like we are getting to a good start, but I think we can go further,” he said.
Dustin Wright, a school principal in Chantilly, said there are inequities in education and other barriers that prevent a more diverse workforce.
“Keeping equity at the center of everything we do in education is one of the most important things,” Wright said. “We need to continue to make sure our schools are full of great teachers and that those teachers reflect the diversity of the students that they teach. We want our students to be able to see themselves in our teachers. We want them to see role models.”
To facilitate that, Wright noted the importance of ensuring teachers are equipped with “some of these backgrounds in core competencies around STEM-H and CS.”
He said this includes incorporating digital literacy into all curriculum areas.
“One of the biggest areas moving forward is thinking about how we are sharing ideas across the Commonwealth,” Wright said. “What technology do we have available for us to make that more possible? Those are some areas where we can grow.”
This, he said, is an area of equity that needs to be addressed.
“A lot of divisions have put a lot of resources into ensuring they are getting a device in every student’s hands. Once we get them access to the device, we need to make sure they have access at home to broadband,” Wright said. “We need to make sure that the technology that we provide them matches their needs.”
Andrew Ko, an entrepreneur and chief executive officer of the Kovexa consulting firm, said it is important to form a partnership between public and private institutions to create an available workforce.
“Eighty percent of our jobs across the U.S. are STEM-related,” Ko said. “There’s a lot of jobs that are created across the entire Commonwealth. One of the major indicators when you are attracting companies to this particular state is education. From that, the private sector wants to get involved.”
Ko said employers are as interested in skill sets rather than grade point averages.
“I’d bring in the private sector, and bring in these micro-credentials, to ask them” about the skills needed “to work at that particular hospital, health care organization or high-tech company,” Ko said, and added this will increase the supply and demand for the careers which will, in turn, create “a strong ecosystem and economy” that will excite the younger generation.
For more about McAuliffe’s “Path to a Brighter Future,” visit https://terrymcauliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/TRM-STEM-H-Education-Plan-FINAL.pdf.